NEW YORK — With a pair of top pitchers going toe-to-toe on the mound, this one felt like a low-scoring playoff game. And that’s exactly what the Washington Nationals are getting ready for.
Max Scherzer struck out 10 and outpitched Jacob deGrom in a matchup of aces, and the Nationals edged the New York Mets 3-2 on Sunday to clinch home-field advantage in the NL Division Series.
“Everything has been turned up, with the focus of trying to get everybody dialed in for the playoffs,” Scherzer said. “It’s not just any one player. That’s why these games are so important.”
Trea Turner hit a two-run homer and Scherzer (16-6) limited the Mets to three hits and one walk over six innings. He leads the National League with 263 strikeouts and ranks second to Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.21) with a 2.55 ERA.
Washington will host Game 1 of a best-of-five playoff series on Oct. 6. The team’s opponent remains to be determined, but the only NL division winner that can finish with a better record than the Nationals (94-61) is Los Angeles.
The Chicago Cubs could win 94 games and the NL Central, but Washington won the season series between the teams 4-3.
Prepping for those postseason chess matches on a rather hot September afternoon, Nationals manager Dusty Baker played matchups with the game on the line in the late innings.
New York cut the lead to 3-2 with one out in the eighth on Jose Reyes’ RBI single. After Ryan Madson struck out Brandon Nimmo and walked Travis d’Arnaud to load the bases, Sammy Solis struck out pinch-hitter Kevin Plawecki to end the inning.
With closer Sean Doolittle getting a rest, Baker went to Brandon Kintzler, who had not recorded a save since July 28 for Minnesota.
Kintzler, who came over in a deal just hours before the July 31 trade deadline, felt that old adrenaline rush as he worked a scoreless ninth for his 29th save in 34 chances this season. The Mets threatened again, putting runners on second and third, but Nori Aoki grounded out to end it.
“It’s good to get something like that out of the way so that next week that pressure won’t be such a surprise,” Kintzler said.
Washington won the season series 13-6, winning eight of 10 games at Citi Field.
Scherzer’s only costly mistake came with two outs in the first when Brandon Nimmo hit a solo homer to give New York the lead.
Turner connected for his 11th homer in the third against deGrom, putting the Nationals in front 2-1.
With Reyes at third, darting down the baseline trying to force a balk after leading off the fourth inning with a single and stealing two bases, Scherzer struck out the side.
DeGrom (15-10) wasn’t too shabby himself, striking out 11 and walking none in his 11th double-digit strikeout game of the season. He ranks second to Scherzer in the National League with 239 strikeouts.
“Certainly with the breakdown of the pitching staff, he turned into the ace,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “He became the guy you turn to when things were tough. When you lost a few in a row, you were always looking to see when he was going to pitch again because you knew that this guy takes it, he competes, he stops losing streaks. That’s what he’s done.”
The right-hander allowed two earned runs in six innings, surpassing 200 innings for the first time in his career — a goal for deGrom coming out of spring training. He struck out every batter in the Nationals’ lineup except Jose Lobaton.
“It’s definitely big for me. We’ve got plans to hopefully go to the World Series next year,” deGrom said, “and I think that’s something I wanted to get to, to know what it’s like to pitch that many innings.”
After serving up Turner’s homer to left field, the Mets’ ace retired his next five batters but then ran into trouble in the fifth. Michael Taylor led off with a single and stole second. He went to third on a throwing error by d’Arnaud and scored on a single by Lobaton.
Nationals slugger Bryce Harper could return from the disabled list before Monday night’s game in Philadelphia. “We’re still trying to make up our minds,” Baker said after Sunday’s game. “So I will let you know (Monday).” Harper has been out with a bone bruise in his left knee after slipping on a wet base while running out a grounder Aug. 12. “Oh, it’s going to be great. I think he is itching at getting back out on the field,” Scherzer said. “Hopefully, he can come back and get his timing back because that is going to be the hardest thing for him.”
A HELPING HAND
The Mets announced they will team up with New York Governor Andrew W. Cuomo on the Empire State Relief & Recovery Effort for Puerto Rico. This week, Citi Field will serve as a site where fans can donate supplies that will be shipped to the island to aid with recovery from Hurricane Maria.
Nationals: RHP A.J. Cole (2-5, 4.43 ERA) will be on the mound for the opener of a three-game set at Philadelphia on Monday. Cole earned his first major league win May 6 with a solid outing against the Phillies, allowing one run over six innings.
Mets: RHP Chris Flexen (3-4, 7.13) starts the first game of a doubleheader against Atlanta on Monday. Seth Lugo (6-5, 5.03) gets the ball in the nightcap as the Mets close their home schedule with a four-game series.
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